Manchester United 4 -2 Stoke City
Anybody watching MUTV on Friday and Saturday will surely have caught themselves in a state of red-faced embarrassment as a shameless SAF put the full court press on Ryan Shawcross at two different press conferences and during his usual Friday chat with the Manchester Evening News’ United correspondent Stuart Matthieson. “Och,” he said in that sexy Govan drawl, just letting it ooze, “I had an embarrassment of riches in Jonny Evans, Gerard Pique, Ryan Shawcross, Craig Cathcart to back up Nemanja Vidic and Rio, not to mention Wes Brown and John O’Shea, but I threw it all away. The baba and the bath water.”
Couldn’t possibly have said it better myself. Beyond the hysterical propaganda offered up by the Arsenal-loving crew of the usual Fleet Street suspects led by Piers Morgan, the hard-tackling Shawcross has improved from being a prospect to the best English center back in the P.L., aside perhaps from Gary Cahill, who has improved immeasurably since leaving Bolton Wanderers to join a quality team at Chelsea. Anyway, clearly, with the Gaffer relentlessly whispering slobbering sweet-nothings and repeated apologies in young Shawcross’ direction, the big decision belongs to the player himself.
Meanwhile, Stoke City’s manager, Tony Pulis has been saying “the lad is not for sale at any price.” Pulis, one of the more likable characters among English managers, up there with Ian Holloway, is telling unconvincing porky pies. That phrase, ‘Not for sale at any price’ is up there with “Dad, I promise I will never drink and drive’ and ‘I love you!’ Pulis–the coach who looks like he is still dressed in the morning by his mum–is surely saying his prayers every day and text messaging Brede Hangeland’s agent’s phone number to Sir Alex. in other words, Ryan Shawcross surely is available, but he’s going to cost United dear!
Do we need Shawcross? Yes, we do! Beyond the welcoming sight of a petrified Aaron Ramsey absolutely making skidmarks in his shorts any time he’s near Shawcross on the pitch, the lad is exactly what we need. Consequently, this was completely reiterated and rendered clear as a bell in United’s pell-mell pinball game team play against Stoke on Saturday. My Lord Ferg can eschew all the clichés he wants about this team model being all about attack, but the truth is neither abstract nor fixed. The right team won, to be sure, but with bigger tests looming against Chelsea, Citeh and the Arse, United’s back four are on their own.
When the bigger tests arise thus far, Manchester United’s back four are simply not up to it. Even though having Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Nemanja Vidic back fit will improve the club, it will not fix the problem. Indeed, even though Rio and Patrice are completely past it– despite dreadful performances against Spurs, and slightly spottier ones in the wins against Liverpool and Newcastle United, they are hanging in there. Against Stoke, a single shrug-offable error allowed a goofy Wayne Rooney own goal, while later, gifted the ball by both Carrick and Evans, Michael Kightly was able to nick a beautiful second goal for the visitors. The two goals were a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Manchester United’s jaw-droppingly dreadful defense. One that is almost comically opposite what is shaping up to be United’s best front line since 1968.
Getting the bad stuff out of the way first is important. Who was marking Kightly? Where was Rafael? Behind Rio. Consistently our best defensive player this season, Rafael was the one leaping into the air in the box to nod away Stoke’s usual diet of floating high balls. Pretty pathetic, although very entertaining, to be sure, that a 5’7” wing back is repeatedly saving his colleagues. And Jonny Evans? Where was Jonny? A fine athlete and not at all a bad ball handler, the boy from Belfast is positionally hopeless and helpless. Short of buying Shawcross, the Gaffer might consider hiring Steve Bruce as a defensive coach. Bruce, who was never speedy or brilliant, made up for his footballing deficiencies with a marvelous sense of positioning and a subtle ruthlessness. Surely it would be worth paying him more than they do at Hull City to just position himself on the sideline and scream simple one-phrase positioning instructions at Evans.
As it was, Evra could not prevent Charlie Adam putting in one cross after another into the box. To his credit, the much maligned David De Gea repeatedly fulfilled his duties brilliantly after letting in Wayne Rooney’s early own goal. Still, with Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up top and Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes working diligently to fill in the spaces left behind as they repeatedly pushed up. Having scored nine goals in their last three games, the red devils have conceded five, won two and lost one. Once again, it’s a crapshoot, but the Gaffer clearly believes we will outscore Chelsea and Citeh.
Van Persie, Welbeck and Rooney showed lots of dexterity and initiative. More and more impressive in each match, Van Persie goes where he feels like going. Elegant and savagely ruthless, RVP is a footballing Rolls-Royce. The wistful bit of one-man-Tango that preceded his firing in a fantastically accurate cross which found Rooney in the box in the 28th minute to make it 1-1 was simply awesome.
Further to this, both aesthetically pleasing, and physically robust against the height and sheer physical power of Stoke’s defense, the triumvirate of strikers freed up an unusually ambitious and feisty Antonio Valencia, who began comfortably moving in and out from the right wing in a gung-ho manner United fans are not used to. They weren’t so much rotating positioning a la the 07-08 front line diamond featuring Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo and Rooney as something more tactically quaint and totally awesome, the Real Madrid death’s head of Di Stefano, Copa, Puskas and Gento. Does it work? Damn right it does, and it may work even better if Kagawa comes in to replace Welbeck at some point next week. Yeah, we may not beat Chelsea next weekend, but we’re going to give them much grief!
United’s prettiest effort out of a fistful of little near masterpiece moments saw a flicked Evra pass which found Welbeck. Welbeck sprinted 40 yards down the left before tapping an exquisite pass to Van Persie, whose give-and-go with Welbeck found Stoke’s goalie Begovic flapping, Although Welbeck’s shot went sadly wide, the move itself was one for the ages and reaffirms my belief that Welbeck is on the cusp of greatness. Rooney’s second goal (and first for United) of the match involved, inevitably, the Dutchman. Playing in the Number 10 slot behind the Scouse wonder boy, he peeled left to deliver a curving ball that found Rooney rising to crash home a header even more impressive than his unfortunate opener into his own net.
But Van Persie soon made it 2-1 only a couple of minute later as Antonio Valencia collected on the right before his cross provided a bullet for the Dutch assassin to smash home. In the groove now, in spite of the half time break, it only took a single moment back on the pitch for United to grab a third as Wayne Rooney slalomed through Stoke’s defense before supplying Welbeck with a perfect pass for the kid to nod home from four yards out
And yet then, with Stoke’s early dominance having evaporated. Kightly scored a clever little goal in the 58th minute after Carrick inexplicably backed off from him, allowing the ex-Wolves winger time to double-dummy a gasping, Ferdinand, and not before before the struggling Rio’s desperate attempt at a back heel rescue ricocheted back to Kightly, who double-clutched back around Evans and Evra before gently firing home past De Gea.
And with the score set at 3-2, the Rooney-Van Persie tandem worked in perfect synchronicity yet again as the Dutchman’s corner was floated clear of Stoke’s defense before Rooney fired a left-footed beauty home in the 85th minute.
My Uncle Nate, out of Port Elizabeth in South Africa, is an avid reader of this blog, albeit eternally a Tottenham Hotspur fan who thinks no footie team ever has equaled the quality of his double-winning 1961 Yids. “Why have a defense at all?” he tells me. “Just attack attack attack and win your hard matches 11-9 and 8-7. That’s legit, innit?”